standard The rise of the word resilience

The term resilience is ambiguous, but is popular enough to spread widely throughout culture. Resilience literally means to ‘bounce back’. It is used virtually everywhere, from sport to science, environmental, economic and global policy.  As far as science is concerned, it seems to have been used in physics and ecology first (C.S. Holling), but it is also used frequently in the social sciences (see ‘Putting a Face on Resilience’ in HRR magazine).  Psychologists and psychiatrists talk about examples of personal resilience, especially in young people (see Norman Garmezy).

One big question about resilience is whether it actually means something universal or has its repeated use reduced it to nonsense?  During times of disaster, a radically changing climate and global financial crisis, it seems resilience allows people to talk about methods of recovery that were either unknown, not thought about as much, or never existed.

Resilience 1800

I thought it would be interesting to check on how often resilience has been used in books using Google’s Ngram tool.  Researchers with the Tipping Points project use data from Ngrams in many of their studies on the use of emotion words for example as well as the use of climate science terms, both of which are on downward trends at the moment.  The term ‘tipping point’ itself has also been studied by researchers and reached its peak in academic publications some years ago.

Resilience is also used in conversations about international development, but its use here has not been without criticism as some see it as meaningless jargon.  Early this year, Time magazine called it the ‘environmental buzz word of 2013’.  It also appears prominently in UN reports on risk and disaster as well as studies on economic recovery and crisis.

resilience peak

Use of resilience in books peaked in 2006. Will it go up again?

Tipping Points researchers are asking if ‘tipping point’ has agency. Does it somehow affect the world it describes?  Or is it simply a word?  Because if words do in some way impact the world around us then developing a language of resilience may actually help people adapt to a changing environment easier.

This spring we will be featuring some of the photos people submitted for our resilience mini-photo competition ‘Photo Stories of Resilience’. In both the arts and sciences, it seems resilience cannot be boxed into one strict definition, nor should it be.  Try defining the term ‘life’.  See what you get.


    1. A very good question. A conference at Durham University (Breaking the Mould – certainly talked a great deal about resilience, but found it difficult to define universally. A language of resilience is really quite an interesting idea. The definition of resilience also varies from culture to culture. I recall speaking with some researchers from Bangladesh who described the concept of resilience as something embedded in people’s lives. People always have to cope and bounce back in order to survive. There is also the problem of resilience in terms of change, does it merely imply that something must go back to a previous state? I would like to think it’s a little more fluid than this and I think many researchers who talk about resilience such as Bernard Manyena (, who focuses on disaster resilience, see it as much broader, comprehensive and even empowering. So I think there is a language of resilience that’s been building up over time. I think David Divine explains it rather well in this article: And psychologist Norman Garmezy is also a pioneer in understanding resilience from a child development point of view, whose research we’ll feature on this blog soon. Clearly there’s much to talk about. At the moment everyone seems to talk about resilience in their own way, bringing them together is a bit trickier, but seems worth doing.


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